Pew, Jews and Missing the Point


Daniel Gordis has a passionate, moving and articulate piece on the decline of Conservative Judaism. It also, unfortunately, misses the point.

Nor was what doomed Conservative Judaism the incessantly discussed vast gulf in practice between the rabbis and their congregants. What really doomed the movement is that Conservative Judaism ignored the deep existential human questions that religion is meant to address.

Except that is exactly what doomed Conservative Judaism. Every liberal religious stream sets out to address deep existential questions that none of their congregants actually want to talk about, except in times of trouble, and which it can have no convincing answers for, because…

Looming unasked in Conservative circles is the following question: Can one create a community committed to the rigors of Jewish traditional living without a literal (read Orthodox) notion of revelation at its core?

Conservative Judaism could have been the movement that made an argument for tradition and distinctiveness without a theological foundation that is for most modern Jews simply implausible; instead of theology, it could have spoken of traditional Judaism and its spiritual discipline as our unique answer to the human need for meaning.

Without revelation, why should any of the congregants take anything the Conservative Rabbis said as anything more than a particular point of view?

All that stuff about unique answers and human need for meaning and deep questions is commonplace. So are most of the answers. None of those answers provide any enduring reason for remaining Jewish.

The gap between the Rabbis, who were fascinated by the technical stuff, and the congregations who weren’t, is at the heart of the problem. With that gap in place, there was never any hope. And trying to transcend the gap by talking philosophy doesn’t work. It barely works for Modern Orthodox and it doesn’t work all that well for them either. There are people who will be absolutely fascinated by it, but they’re usually potential students.

The Orthodox world simply organized communities around religious practice and practice around revelation. Without that, you have abstract philosophy.

As Conservative writers and rabbis addressed questions such as “are we halakhic,” “how are we halakhic,” and “should we be halakhic,” most of the women and men in the pews responded with an uninterested shrug. They were not in shul, for the most part, out of a sense of legally binding obligation. Had that been what they were seeking, they would have been in Orthodox synagogues. They had come to worship because they wanted a connection to their people, to transcendence, to a collective Jewish memory that would give them cause for rejoicing and reason for weeping, and they wanted help in transmitting that to their children. While these laypeople were busy seeking a way to explain to their children why marrying another Jew matters, how a home rooted in Jewish ritual was enriching, and why Jewish literacy still mattered in a world in which there were no barriers to Jews’ participating in the broader culture, their religious leadership was speaking about whether or not the movement was halakhic or how one could speak of revelation in an era of biblical criticism.

That’s right… and it’s also wrong. It’s like the old line about the worst way of being happy is to go looking for it.

You don’t become happy by searching for happiness. You don’t do all that stuff about collective memory, transcendence and reasons for rejoicing and weeping by going looking for them. You run into them while living a committed life as part of an ethno-religious group that traces its way of life and identity back thousands of years.

You either commit and find what you’re looking for… or you look for things without ever finding them.

The movement never wrote the way that Taylor writes, and it never taught its rabbis to think or to speak with that kind of deep existential and spiritual seriousness. It could have, though. It could have invoked Jewish intellectuals, like Michael Sandel, who wrote in Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, that:

[W]e cannot regard ourselves as independent . . . without . . . understanding ourselves as the particular persons we are—as members of this family or community or nation or people, as bearers of this history, as sons and daughters of that revolution, as citizens of this republic . . . For to have character is to know that I move in a history I neither summon nor command, which carries consequences nonetheless for my choices and conduct. It draws me closer to some and more distant from others; it makes some aims more appropriate, others less so.

All this is pretty enough and yet ultimately meaningless. The endless intellectualizing misses the point. Religion is community. It’s not rhetoric.

The Orthodox failed to build a community for generations in the United States because they kept building communities around study halls, instead of around people. They eventually learned how to combine both.

It’s not the big questions that bring people in. But the little ones.

Community is custom. But maintaining a community in an essentially assimilationist society is doomed without culture. And culture requires separation. Separation is an onerous duty that requires revelation.

Without revelation, everything becomes arbitrary. The most serious rhetoric is undone because if you discard revelation, there is no longer any confidence in anything. All things become arbitrary. Tradition is honored out of sentimentality, rather than accepted as obligation.

And that’s how it all ends.

Once a religion admits its arbitrariness by disavowing revelation, it no longer has a reason to exist except convenience.

  • LibertarianToo

    Nail on the head once again, Mr. Greenfield. I was talking to a woman from Georgetown U, and it became clear that she did not accept the divinity of Jesus -which seems kind of essential if one is a Catholic or Christian. I asked why she thought Jesus had lived, and she said “to let us know God is there,” which would seem somewhat unconvincing given the crucifixion and all. But it does begin to explain why Georgetown is like it is -more interested in Gay Pride than in the fundamentals of faith, and willing to cover up crosses for Obama photo ops.

  • tickletik

    Correction, you actually do have to go looking for happiness to become happy. What most people do is something else.

    There is basically only one possible way to be happy. Look at every single thing in your life and APPRECIATE IT AS A GOOD THING THAT YOU DON’T REALLY DESERVE – i.e. A GIFT OF LOVE FROM A FATHER WHO LOVES YOU, YOU WONDERFUL KNUCKLEHEADS!!!!!!

    The more we study every single good thing we have, and why and how it is good, and how it is all totally free, the more happy we get. When I realize what a jerk I’ve been, and how good I have it, I realize that Hashem must really really like me!

    That is the secret to happiness. I mostly got it from Avigdor Miller and Rabbi Nachman of Breslov.

    Also, like anything else you want success at, it’s important to talk to Hashem about it regularly and ask Him to help you with it. Remember, most of our needs in this world are really just excuses to talk to Hashem about something with genuine heart.

  • Habbgun

    I come from a non-religious family but at least they identified as Jews. I have embraced Orthodoxy and can tell you why Conservative and Reform are doomed to fail if someone wants them to be an alternate way to spirituality.

    Despite all the craziness and hypocrisy you can get in religious communities ultimately halachic Judaism speaks to each Jew about their relationship with Hashem and the world. Reform and Conservative Judaism speak of the need to conform to economic pressures incurred by those determined to succeed at any price. They both say they are responding to demographic pressures but in those societies money talks. There is nothing lonelier than being a true believer in those places and going through tough economic times. There is no place for such a person. They drop out forever. What R and C Judaism see as an intense failure of Orthodox Judaism is its strength. R and C see people in poverty or working poor and see a tragedy. Not so. Poor people hold on and try for better times just as their ancestors did. Orthodox Judaism does what R and C can not. They give people a spiritual life separate from social condition, This is something that rich, middle class and poor alike appreciate.

    The most telling conclusion in the whole report is that they believe Orthodoxy is increasing because of greater tolerance. Twenty minutes ago Orthodoxy supposedly only succeeded because antisemitism prevented Jews from having greater horizons. They aren’t even lying. They can’t see that social conditions are not the final arbitrators of everything.

    • Daniel Greenfield

      It goes back to the efforts to create a Judaism that would be the counterpart of liberal protestant churches and in some ways be indistinguishable from them

      Mission accomplished

    • Chavi Beck

      “a spiritual life separate from social condition” — so true. I live in a hassidic community in Brooklyn and I like to describe my neighborhood as the only one I’ve ever heard of that is not organized by income level. In a (big) way I think it makes you more human.

  • Chavi Beck

    Bingo. Bookmarking this article. Thanks Daniel.

  • churchill
  • churchill


    I am a Christian sinner seeking to discern God’s will.

    In my prayers, I forbear to ask God for things since I feel I am not worthy. Your words have help me understand that my pain and my wishes for myself are ” just excuses to talk to Hashem about something with genuine heart.”

    I am also coming to terms with a considerable paradox, which is: I get more insight from many Jewish – and particularly Orthodox – writers and thinkers than Christian ones.

    I can only conclude that several thousand years of oppression must count for something, I suppose. Had my own ancestors schlepped around Sinai for forty years, seeking the answers to important existential issues whilst starving to death, my own culture might exhibit a little more genuine insight.

    I love to read Greenfield’s stuff and now i can look for your contributions as well.

    Thank you.


  • Kevin Bjornson

    Human life without religion does not have to be meaningless. Human life with religion can be meaningless.

    There are many sources of meaning. The right ones are in accord with reason and human nature; this constitutes humanism. The wrong ones are in accord with religion (or some type of faith system) and to the extent they are based on revelation, are opposed to humanism.

    Ordinary human life does not involve revelation and revelation works against the good life.. So Daniel’s proposed fusion between them makes no sense and is unprecedented.